On an extended weekend in July, we decided to take a family road trip to Washington, DC.
Coming from Greater Boston, the drive isn’t short (8-9 hours; about 440 miles), but there are many places along the way with which to break it up – including cities like New York, Philly, and Baltimore. Just keep in mind that extra traffic can make your drive longer than expected! Highlights of our particular trip included many of the Smithsonian Museums, a few other museums and galleries, lot of National Monuments and Memorials, a stop to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, as well as a stop at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.
Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey
Our first intended destination was the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park for the birthday of one of our kids, covid concerns aside. This park currently has the world’s tallest roller coaster, which is a positive for a pair of teen boys.
We left the Boston area late afternoon on Wednesday, with the goal of getting past New York City and its associated metro traffic the following morning. NYC itself is about a 4 hour drive from Boston, so we found a hotel maybe 4.5 hours from our house, near the freeway in New Jersey that was roughly an hour from the theme park. The evening drive was uneventful, getting in around 9-10pm. Then the next morning, after our hotel breakfast, we drove the remaining hour to the amusement park, making sure we were there 30 minutes before the park opening time.
Lines were short, particularly in the morning, the boys had tons of fun, and we ended up not getting sick, so all-in-all, it ended up working out. You can read about our full experience on an earlier post!
After leaving the amusement park, we drove a bit further south, staying the night in the Cherry Hill, NJ area, relatively close to Philadelphia.
Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Our hotel choice set us up for an easy 30 minute drive into Philadelphia. We parked near the Independence Visitor Center, then walked to the Liberty Bell Center.
The Liberty Bell Center is quite fascinating!
In addition to learning about the making of the bell and problems with its construction, you will also learn about its fascinating roll in both the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement.
With an inscription like “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” you can probably guess some of the purposes that various groups assigned to this bell!
After visiting the Liberty Bell, we moved on to Independence Hall. Unfortunately, Independence Hall now requires advance reservations to enter, so we snapped a picture told the boys that this was where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed, and showed them the picture of the building on the matching bill.
It was a fun stop, and while there are many more sights to see in Philadelphia, our goal was Washington, D.C., so we did a quick walking tour of the area, then hopped into the car and continued our drive.
Along the way, we did stop for quick bite to eat in Delaware, since our kids hadn’t technically been in the state of Delaware yet (though that visit probably only marginally counts).
Suburban Air and Space Museum
When we into the D.C. metro area around 2-3pm, we went to the suburban National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia (different from the Air and Space Museum along the National Mall in DC), which was a great visit for our airplane enthusiast son. It has more space for larger exhibits, and we hadn’t seen it before.
First Evening in Washington, DC.
When we arrived inside Washington, DC, around 5pm, we checked into the Downtown Residence Inn. If you plan to do most of your travel by foot, our recommendation is to stay as close to the National Mall and other points of interest as possible. Distances are deceiving and you will get tired quickly if you try to walk too far. Our experience has been that hotels near the White House have been both convenient and not as expensive as some of the other hotels in downtown Washington, DC.
We rested for a bit, then decided to head out for dinner and a walk on the National Mall.
After making a stop by the White House, we made a detour into Chinatown for dinner. While we enjoyed our meal, we had order a 4 person family special and ended up with way too much food. Slightly unfortunate, but it was tasty.
Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial
From there, we walked to the National Mall where we got a distant view of the Capitol Building. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves, we decided not to walk the entire mall, but instead chose a small portion of it that included the Washington Monument, the WWII Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, Lincoln’s Memorial, and the Vietnam War Memorial.
On our way back to our hotel, a bunch of the streets were blocked off by the police and were being guarded by helicopters. After observing for a while, our conclusion was that President Biden was likely getting into his own helicopter and making his way to the airport or some other destination.
At this point, an Uber or taxi back to our hotel might have been nice, but since we were in Covid times and felt like we had taken enough risks with our amusement park adventure, we decided to exercise our legs and walk back to the hotel.
First Full Day in Washington, DC
On our family’s first full day in Washington, DC, we decided to visit two museums: the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of museum. Keep in mind that in the summer, it can be hot outside in DC, and air-conditioned museum can make the heat of the day much more pleasant. In any case, figure out how much time you want to spend exploring museums, and pick your activities based on that.
Before going, check the current rules/hours and be aware that they might change with little notice – when we first thought of the trip, timed reservations were required, but a few days before the trip, they got rid of that requirement.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The main reason people go to the Natural History Museum is to see the dinosaurs. They have a very impressive collection of dinosaur bones, not as impressive as some in the American West, but still very nice.
In addition to dinosaurs, there are also nice exhibits on human origins, mammals, ocean creatures, geology, and more!
After visiting the amazing Natural History Museum, we got a predictably mediocre lunch in the museum cafe, but we were sufficiently hungry that it didn’t seem to matter.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
From there, we continued onto the American History Museum, which was quite nice if you found the right exhibits.
The transportation exhibit is quite impressive and is sure to delight toddlers, teens, and grandparents!
If war history piques your interest, then you can spend quite a bit of time exploring exhibits on the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars, and more!
James really liked seeing the original U.S. flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. You can also find exhibits on technology, everyday life, and more!
Korean Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial
We went back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta, and then at dinner time we decided to head out and see a few more sights in the National Mall. If you are in Washington, DC, for multiple days, it really is best to avoid seeing all of the National Monuments and Memorials in one day. In the heat of the summer, this area is nicest in the early morning and evening, so take your time exploring a small section of the National Mall each day.
Having finished the memorials on the north side of the reflecting pool the night before, we set out towards the south side of the reflecting pool. Unfortunately, the Korean War Memorial was under renovation, so that was a bit of a bust.
Continuing further south, we came to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and then the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
We eventually made it to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. While the steps were under renovation, the inside was still accessible. While it is a bit out of the way, you can get some nice views of the city from here.
It was starting to rain a bit harder, although really not that bad, so we decided to head directly back to the hotel from here.
Second Full Day in Washington, DC
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is one of my favorite museums. If you love Western art through the centuries, this is an art gallery for you!
We decided to try one of the many food trucks along the National Mall for lunch and ate on a park bench.
International Spy Museum
Our next stop was the International Spy Museum (which is a private museum, not a Smithsonian museum), which might have been more fun if it weren’t quite so crowded. Or packed with under-12 unvaccinated kids.
We looked at the displays, and some of the interactive exhibits, which were interesting enough, but it might be better off-peak, whenever that is.
We haven’t taken a ton of Ubers since covid, but we sufficiently tired that we took an Uber back to the hotel. The Metro in DC is decent enough, but the distance between stops can be deceptively far. Plus when traveling with a family of 4, the cost of an Uber is typically not that much more than 4 metro tickets.
Heading Back to Boston
Since Jeremy needed to work on Monday morning, we had planned that Jeremy and James would fly back to Boston on an early morning flight, while John and I drove.
By Sunday late afternoon, we were done with museums and sites, and I still had energy to drive, so John and I decided to leave that evening, and try to just past New York City. The traffic between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore was fairly heavy, though probably less so than on Monday morning – the stretch between DC and NY feels like Greater Los Angeles, where there can always be some traffic somewhere. But in any case, we both converged back to Boston on Monday, following our different paths.